Newest Review: ... directly in front of you is the Audience Chamber where the Sultan of the day would greet ambassadors and other dignitaries, whilst sprawled... more
Topkapi Palace (Istanbul, Turkey)
Member Name: Essexgirl2006
Topkapi Palace (Istanbul, Turkey)
Advantages: beautiful and interesting building with lots to see
Disadvantages: Not much siagnage - buy/bring a guide book
One of my absolute highlights of my mini-break to Istanbul earlier this year was the Topkapi Palace. Situated just beyond the Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet district, it is about 5minutes walk from the tram stop. Mehmet the Conqueror built the initial part in the mid fifteenth century, from then on this was the place the Ottoman sultans lived until the 19th century, where they moved to more modern, European style palaces, although Topkapi remained important for certain state official events and contained a number of important relics and artefacts. President Ataturk converted it to a museum in 1924.
FIRST AND SECOND COURTS
You enter through the Imperial Gate (good luck getting a good photo without tons of people in the way) into the First Court first of all (unsurprisingly), and this part is free. I believe it is occasionally used as a parade ground, but in its heyday would have seen a lot of activity with gardens and support industries (bakery, wood) were prepared for the palace. The next part is the Second Court (are you seeing a pattern here?) and is where the gift shop is located (lovely and warm on a cold, windy day) and where you queue for tickets. Entry is TL25 (just over £9), and this allows you full access except for The Harem which you have to pay separately for. Although the Palace kitchens and Imperial Council Chamber are here (as well an entrance to The Harem) we decided to head straight through to the Third Court is as this seemed to be where most of the action was. I had my Lonely Planet Istanbul guidebook in my sticky paw, and used this to tell me where to go, and ensure I didn't miss anything important.
You enter through The Gate of Felicity and directly in front of you is the Audience Chamber where the Sultan of the day would greet ambassadors and other dignitaries, whilst sprawled on a divan bed with fancy embroidered and beaded cushions. Behind this is the eighteenth century Library of Ahmet III, it is a very pretty room, with lots of stained glass windows, wood detail and pretty tiles. This is a good introduction to the décor you will see throughout the rest of the palace, but sadly there are no books here. As you come out again, to your right are former barracks with now house a number of heavily embroidered fine robes and kaftans as worn by past emperors. You are not allowed to take photos of these robes (Oops). After this I explored the Treasury and Fourth Court (see below) before returning back to here. Also in the Third Court are the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms which had a long queue. At this point I was rueing the fact I hadn't had lunch before coming here, and was just about to join the queue when I spotted two members of our party coming out and they suggested that it could be missed if you were not too fussed about seeing one of Mohammed's saucepans. Weak with hunger I concurred and I missed this out as well as the room containing portraits of all the Sultans.
This is situated in the Third Court, next to the barracks housing the robes, but I feel it is worthy of a section of its own. I had to queue for about 15 minutes to get in and I recommend keeping to the right as that is the way the queue moves around the rooms. It thins out in later rooms, but at first you may find yourself in a slow procession around the room, and by keeping right you will be able to see all the exhibits and read any labels without obstruction by other people's heads. In later rooms you will be able to move more freely and not worry about being stuck behind someone who reads slower than you.
Overall there are four rooms, and again no photo. These rooms are basically the Turkish crown jewels. In various rooms you will see highly ornate daggers, swords and thrones decorated with jewels, other jewellery, and 86 carat diamond and a pile of emeralds. It wasn't to everyone's taste, but I found the exhibits generally impressive and worth the queue.
As you come out of the treasury, there is a doorway taking you out to a terrace with views over the Bosphorus and the city. Here the area is more open to the elements as the previous courts had actually been a walled courtyard, so it was quite windy here. You could wander through the Tulip Garden, but in early March this didn't have a great deal to offer. There are a number of kiosks or pavilions here. Highlights include the ornate Baghdad Kiosk, built in the seventeenth century to commemorate Murat IV's victory over that city. There is also the Circumcision Room, which has some beautiful decorative windows and tiles. I am not sure how much of a comfort that is to those being circumcised....
You have to pay separately for this. An extra TL15 (£5.50) is what they will rush you, and I think it is well worth it. This section is generally quieter than the rest of the palace and we wandered at leisure. I assumed the Harem was where the Sultan kept his concubines and got up to all sorts, but actually it was the private family quarters and I found it more ornate and attractive than the other parts of the palace. The Sultan did keep concubines, but many were ladies-in-waiting who had been educated in the skills ladies needed (embroidery, dancing, culture) since childhood within the Harem. If they were lucky they were promoted to concubine later. Life would have been fairly political as brothers squabbled for the rights of being the next Sultan (it didn't automatically go to the eldest son).
The Harem wasn't built until later than the rest of the palace (about 1575) and you can only visit part of it. There are various courtyards and rooms that were assigned for various residents: eunuch guards, women servants, Sultan's wives etc. You will see modest laundry fountains, some gorgeous tiles and colourful glass windows. There seemed to be lots of laying around on sumptuous divans if you were a key family member.
I didn't really plan my timings of my visit here very well and got over-hungry. They do have a café here, but I didn't eat here, preferring to meet some friends later and spend my time exploring. The café is in the Fourth Court, by the terrace and I believe it is quite pricey.. I didn't see any toilets but I assume they must have some. There is a modern gift shop as you leave via the Second Court, which was warm and had a variety of quality gifts. You could probably get some items cheaper elsewhere, but the goods looked of a better quality than those we spotted in the Bazaar.
The Palace is a real highlight, and one I feel I could go back to also. My only regret is that I didn't plan ahead timings wise. I think we were there about two and a half hours, but ideally perhaps I should have allowed an extra hour maybe. This will depend on your personal level of interest though. There is not a great deal of signage and historical information available, so a guide book (either an official one, or a detailed city guide) would help you get the most out of this.
Summary: A must see in Istanbul